"I feel stupid," someone said the other day. "I consider myself well-informed, but I have no idea what the term 'austerity economics' really means."
Actually it's not that complicated, and most of the lesson plan can be found in today's headlines.
We'll explain austerity to you in six steps, and we promise it it won't take more than 900 words. Since adults read an average of 250-300 words per minute - and we know all of you are above average - our little course shouldn't take more than three minutes.
It's certainly worth knowing. Despite its many failures, "austerity economics" keeps remaking - and unmaking - the global economy. The only disagreement at this weekend's Republican debate was over which candidate would push austerity more aggressively. And austerity dominated the political agenda last year - "Deficit Commission," anyone? - until Occupy came along.
Merriam-Webster named "austerity" the "Word of the Year" for 2010. But like the monster from a 1950's science-fiction movie, it just keeps on growing. This week alone the name was invoked in government houses from Athens to Lagos.
What is this creature called "austerity," and why does it still hold so much power? If you've got three minutes, let's get started.
1. What is it?
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines "austerity" as "when a government has a deliberate policy of trying to reduce the amount of money it spends."
Wikipedia calls it "a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided," adding that it's "sometimes coupled with increases in taxes to pay back creditors to reduce debt."
Got that? Austerity backers want government to spend less on benefits and public services, and to pay back its creditors more quickly. Higher taxes aren't part of the plan and they're strictly optional.
2. What's austerity supposed to accomplish?
Austerity advocates don't just see lower deficits and reduced debt as tools to promote long-term economic health. They consider them ends in themselves - sometimes even as moral values.
Many austerity advocates see government spending as inherently evil. That goes for all government spending, including police, teachers, nurses, and firefighters.
Sure, some of them will admit there can be necessary evils or useful evils - usually weapons procurement or law enforcement. But spending is always evil.
Other people aren't philosophically opposed to government spending, but have been convinced that it has become unaffordable today.
3. What's the theory behind austerity economics?
To answer that, it's important to understand that the economics profession has been systematically taken over by well-funded conservative academics. They've created elaborate theoretical constructs to prove that government spending is economically destructive.
These include theories like 'Barro-Ricardo equivalence,' which says people won't spend money when they know their government's incurring debts they'll have to pay someday. Conservative economists like Robert Barro insist this is true even in times of widespread unemployement, like now, and argue against stimulus spending to create jobs.
Oddly, they find this theory more compelling than the idea that people aren't spending money because they don't have jobs.
Then there's supply-side economics, which argues that the best way to grow the economy is by cutting taxes. That means smaller government. Supply-siders also rely on the "Laffer curve," which says people will stop investing, producing, and creating jobs if taxes are too high.
Austerity advocates also argue that international markets will lose confidence in governments if they don't curb spending and will charge them higher interest. So they even push cuts in Social Security, which doesn't even add to the deficit, because macroeconomists consider it 'government spending.'